You know, America is a big country full of amazing things. Just when I think I’ve seen it all, we go around a corner and there’s something that adds a new dimension. This week it was North Cascades National Park in north-central Washington state.
While we were absorbing the sad fact that our Montana trip was going to be considerably abbreviated (mostly due to crowding around the Glacier area) I noticed North Cascades National Park in our road atlas. It’s not one of the “big name” western parks and I never hear anyone talk about it, so I assumed at first it was one of those obscure units of the National Park Service that’s comprised of a lot of forest and few visitor-friendly amenities.
But it was a “National Park”, meaning that it took an act of Congress to gain its status, and that is a rare thing indeed. Of over 400 units of the National Park Service, only 58 are designated “National Park”. The rest are National Monuments, Historical Sites, Lakeshores, Battlefields, Recreation Areas, etc. Even some western major sites like Devils Tower, Dinosaur, Organ Pipe Cactus, and Natural Bridges are designated National Monuments, not Parks. So there had to be something more there than I had suspected.
The atlas showed a long, narrow lake winding its way into North Cascades, called Lake Chelan (pronounced “shell-ANN”) and a ferry service the entire length called “Lady Of The Lake”. This ferry is one of three ways to reach the town of Stehekin (“stuh-HEE-kin”) at the extreme northern end of the lake. The other ways are on foot through the mountains, and seaplane. This seemed like something worth checking out, so we decided to cut down to I-90 in Montana and zip straight to Washington so we’d have a few days to spend up in the Cascades.
I should mention that the drive over was uneventful by my standards, but then I sometimes forget that I’m used to dealing with a lot of hairy situations while towing. If nothing blows up or fails spectacularly during a tow, I generally write it off as “uneventful.” But Eleanor does some of the driving now, and she caught what I call “a learning opportunity” in the last few miles of our trip.
We were navigating mostly by GPS during this leg and so didn’t notice that there was a 12% downgrade to Chelan Falls. This by itself would be intimidating enough for a towing-trainee but it was compounded by a strong wind and blowing dust. When Eleanor spotted this sign she knew she was in for some excitement.
Going down is always harder than going up, at least psychologically. The sensation of a trailer pushing causes many people to ride the brakes down the hill, which is of course a mistake because on a long grade you’ll have overheated brakes or perhaps no brakes at all.
So I took the opportunity to teach Eleanor the right way to get down a steep hill without melting the brake discs. She got a little sweaty but she managed and it was—I hope—a confidence-building experience.
In any case, a nice public park awaited us at the bottom of the hill, at Beebe Bridge Park, along a river. While setting up we found two empty metal cannabis tubes abandoned next to our site. Hadn’t seen that before. (It’s legal here.) I don’t care if people want to smoke the stuff, but sheesh, at least throw away your trash!
We set the Airstream up a few miles away from the ferry dock and caught the Lady Express at 8:30 am the next morning. The Lady Express is the “quick” boat, an all-aluminum ferry with twin turbodiesel engines and forty-inch propellers that push it up the lake at 24 MPH. It’s a fun ride on a sunny day.
The Lady of the Lake is on the left in the photo above. It is larger and slower (about 14 MPH), taking 4 hours to travel the length of Lake Chelan. The Lady Express is at right. Because of the way the schedules work, the ideal play for daytrippers (in the summer) is to take the Lady Express north in the morning to arrive at Stehekin by 11:00, then pick up the Lady Of The Lake at 2:00 for the return trip. That gives you the maximum time in Stehekin.
The ferry attracts jetskiiers along the southern portion of the lake, where the vacationer are clustered. This part of the lake relatively calm (especially compared to the “narrows” section further north) so sometimes the only waves the jetskiiers can find to play on are those created by the ferry boats. It’s a lot like watching dolphins bow-riding waves in front of ships.
The area around Chelan reminded us of Lake Como in Italy, a little. Add in a few old stone estates, olive trees, and walking trails up into the hills and it would be a lot closer.
Of course, in Italy you probably wouldn’t find an Airstream parked on the hillside …
Stehekin is an unusual outpost. One person described arriving as being “like summer camp.” The moment you land there are people waiting to greet you, direct you to the Rainbow Falls tour or the NPS Visitor Center or the Lodge, and dusty red buses to haul you around. There are only a few things to do there, and since the local economy is entirely built on tourism, they want to make sure you have a chance to enjoy everything.
It’s a bit funny when you see all the cars parked in Stehekin and reconcile that with the facts: there are only 80 year-round residents, there is only one road, and it’s just 13 miles long. Of course, the population is quite a bit bigger in summer with tourists in town, including dozens of hikers.
Three hours in a tiny village might seem like a long time but it flew by for us. We checked out Rainbow Falls, ate lunch at the famous local bakery, walked two miles back to town, and then hit the Visitor Center. There’s so much to see, photograph, taste … and no distractions. Zero cell service, a feature I’m coming to appreciate because it is so rare. Most of the time I need to be connected, but when I am taking a day off it’s nice to see the phone enforce it with a “No Service” indicator.
There are other ways to get here. Next time I want to hike in, taking a couple of days to explore some of the Cascades trails. You can use the Lady Of The Lake to help with that, either getting dropped off or picked up at a few “flag stops” along the lakeshore. In places where there is no dock the steel-hulled boat just runs aground lightly, then extends a gangplank to pick up hikers.
We picked up a hiker at one such flag stop on the way back. He confessed to having missed the boat the night before (thinking it was a smaller boat and not the ferry), so he had to tent-camp an additional night. That sounded a lot like a fortuitous moment to me. It was a beautiful place to spend a night all alone. Lucky bastard.
Seven hours of cruising on the lake and three hours roaming Stehekin was just about the best use of a sunny day in the summer I could think of. I highly recommend the trip.
Our next stop was further north in the Cascades, but I’ll talk about that in a future post.